Ten years ago, I was a minor celebrity for a few days. Really, really minor, but enough to be interviewed by VG and NRK (both radio and TV), and to mentioned in Nytt på nytt. Not enough to be recognised in the street, though. But enough to get my mother fired.
I was finishing my studies at the time, and didn’t find anything more interesting to do than be a substitute teacher at the school where my mother was the principal. I almost had a degree in Literary science. It’s not as if companies were headhunting me; I wasn’t trained to be a teacher either, though, as both my parents are teachers and I always said I never wanted to be a teacher. Never in million years. This job was just an intermezzo between studies and something else.
The intention was that I should be the eternal last resort. If a teacher was sick, or couldn’t come to work for some other reason, I had to step in and give the pupils something to do, just something to keep them occupied, work sheets or tasks to keep them occupied and not too bored.
I wasn’t a real teacher, I couldn’t be given too much responsibility — but I always had time on my hands, so I could always be trusted to step in if needed.
One day my mother, the principal, the head teacher, told my that one class needed a teacher in KRL: the subject where all kinds of religion and philosophies were being taught. Their old teacher had to go on a sick leave. He hadn’t prepared anything for the next weeks. Can’t you just teach them about Hinduism, my mother said, or Buddhism, or perhaps something else.
Or something else.
Most of my life, I’ve been in love with dictionaries. When I was a teenager, I read dictionaries for fun. Not entire dictionaries, I never had time for that, but I’d read four pages here, five pages there, read everything for a couple of pages and skip randomly to another five pages, just getting caught up in the pleasure of, I don’t know, words. The sheer joy of discovering new words and realising how many words there are in a language.
When my mother sent me to the KRL-class, I had just found a word list online: it was a list over Norwegian swear words, several thousand of them, sent in by readers of the web page. I had spent too much time there, fascinated in the same way as dictionaries fascinated me, but also thinking about how to make the list smaller and more manageable and yet with more words. You see, the words were in alphabetical order, and if you read them, it went something like this: salad cunt, salad face, salad head, salad jerk. Or baboon bimbo, baboon butt, baboon cunt, baboon face etc etc. (It sounds better in Norwegian.)
There was an obvious pattern. So if one could write the words in two columns, or even three (with an adjective in front — bitchy baboon butt), you’d have an entire swearing machine. That’s what I would call it: Skjellsordmaskinen — the invective machine.
So I read my trusted Norsk Ordbok once, 81000 words, and wrote down all the words which conceivably could be used invectively. Then I read the entire thing one more time, and found even more words, creating three columns with a couple of thousand words in each. Then I graded all the words: the best words got a 6, the ones with hardly any invective force at all got a 1.
And that was what I taught the kids at school.
I gave them a piece of paper with rude words, insulting words, swear words, in three columns, and asked them to come up with the best compound. words. As it is written in the VG article, “Bærbar bestemordildo” was one of the most popular: a portable grandmother-dildo.
I taught them about linguistics and morality, how one creates new words and that words can be both harmful and helpful. I asked them about who really decides which words are swearwords, and told them about the historical development of swearing. I showed them that semantic satiation can work with all kinds of words: they were told to repeat one of the worst swearwords they knew, all together, over and over and over. At first it was embarrassing, with lots of giggling and blushing. After ten minutes, they begged me to stop.
They learned a lot and they will probably never forget the experience. And that’s where the story could have ended. Unfortunately, or fortunately, I agreed with a friend of mine that he should tip the press. And after that, it started snowballing.
There were interviews, both of me and the pupils. I could handle that, and the pupils too. But then my mother got into trouble with her superiors: how could she allow her own son to teach the pupils about swear words in this way? They never saw eye to eye after that, and a few years of feuding later, she lost her job.
After finishing my studies, I never came back to that school. (Even though I was chosen as “teacher of the year” — when the jury is exclusively made up by pupils, awards like this always go to a young “cool” man, and that year I was the only young man at school.) I taught at another school for a year, but never mentioned anything about swearing.
I did write a manuscript, though, a couple of hundred pages with my own analysis of swearing, which might never see the light of published day. I was lucky to be one of several people to write a book about swearing, and I have held a couple of lectures about the subject, and will hold a few more.
And all because I like to read dictionaries (and even write about wanting to buy them).
Or liked to read, rather, I haven’t done it since, well, ever since I became a father. And it doesn’t matter what I have done before, this is now and this is when I must do these tasks.
I might go through Riksmålsordboken, then. Perhaps I’ll get my face in the newspaper again.
Or, oh, yeah. My wife’s entire family speak some version of Serbo-Croatian. When I first met them, I was learning at least five words a day, I even managed to have simple conversations. Now, however, I understand a lot more, but it’s for some reason more embarrassing to try to speak. And, you know, when your in-laws speak another language, you sometimes have an excuse…
No more. From today, I’ll learn at least ten new Serbo-Croatian words a day. I need to keep up with my sons’ increasingly complex conversations with their mother.
And this time, I won’t be able to fire anyone’s mother.
PS — I still have Skjellsordmaskinen on my laptop. One day, I’ll create an app of it.